BASTROP, Texas – Residents left homeless by a massive Central Texas wildfire turned their attention Friday to what they need to move forward, with some voicing frustration over a perceived delay in federal response even as early signs of recovery appeared in reopened neighborhoods.
Firefighters focused on extinguishing hotspots and had isolated remaining flames from the blaze that has burned for almost a week in and around the city of Bastrop, destroying nearly 1,400 homes and sweeping across about 45 square miles of rain-starved landscape.
"We believe the forward progress (of the fire) has been stopped, thank God for that," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told evacuated residents gathered at the fire command center.
Still, thousands of evacuees were prevented from returning to their homes for a sixth day because trees continued to burn underground, loose power lines hung from scorched poles and more than 800 firefighters were working to tamp down the remainder of the fire 25 miles east of Austin.
"It's just really frustrating," said Dee Redenius, 40, who came to the fire command center for answers. "You want to know if your house is there or if it's not. ... They don't let you in, you know. You can't get assistance."
Dewhurst said the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state emergency management personnel on specific fire declarations. FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said on Friday the agency "received the first request from the governor for individual aid to help Texas residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the fires, or who suffered other personal losses."
She said FEMA would "work with the White House to review this request as expeditiously as possible."
Dewhurst also made a public plea for President Barack Obama to make a major disaster declaration that he said would remove red tape and give the state access to more resources. Hours later, White House officials announced that Obama had signed a declaration declaring a major disaster exists in Texas.
The move allows federal funding to be made available to individuals in Bastrop County. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs.
"We need help yesterday ... Mr. President, we need a statewide disaster declaration right away," Dewhurst said prior to Obama's declaration.
Texas is in the midst of its worst wildfire outbreak in state history. A perilous mix of hot temperatures, strong winds and a historic drought spawned the Bastrop-area fire, the largest of the nearly 190 wildfires the state forest service says erupted this week, killing four people, destroying more than 1,700 homes and forcing thousands to evacuate.
The Texas Forest Service said Friday that the Bastrop fire had racked up a bill of at least $1.2 million so far. But the agency cautioned the figure was an early estimate and was expected to climb. The early price tag includes firefighting costs but not damage caused by the blaze.
A DC-10 jet originally meant to dump fire retardant on the Central Texas wildfires was diverted Friday to help firefighters with a stubborn 22,000-acre blaze straddling three rural counties northwest of Houston. The fire in Montgomery, Grimes and Waller counties forced some people in the area to leave their homes, but was not threatening any towns or cities, Texas Forest Service spokesman Ralph Collum said.
In Bastrop, tables set up at the entrance to a neighborhood that had reopened a day earlier filled up with donated clothing and toiletries. A first aid station was assembled and streets began to buzz with tree-trimming crews and building contractors.
Officials also announced that schools would reopen Monday. But Bastrop Independent School District superintendent Steve Murray said, "We anticipate the homeless student count in Bastrop ISD to triple, quadruple or even more."
To deal with that, school officials were developing plans to pick up students at hotels, shelters and other locations.
Monica Turner, 34, was growing more frustrated every day. She had seen photographs of her family's house in ashes.
"We have pictures, but pictures don't do any good when you need to have closure and you need to see it face to face," she said. "I need to have that closure so that I can go and move on."